The Battle of Worldviews: Dualism and Theism in Tolkien and Lewis

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

September 18, 2012

Everyone has a worldview.  And every worldview has to deal with a key issue: the origins of good and evil.  This is the perennial question of our existence and no one can escape it.  Even fictional worldviews have to account for good and evil (if they are going to make any sense).

One possibility is to suggest that there is no such thing as good and evil.  On a materialist-evolutionary worldview, where there is nothing but matter in motion, concepts like “good” and “evil” are merely human constructs.   But such a worldview leads directly to Nihilism.  We are forced to argue that the actions of people like Jerry Sandusky are not really “wrong” in any objective sense.  In a materialist universe, actions are not moral or immoral.  They just are.

Of course, few people willingly walk down a nihilistic path like this one.  Moreover, very few fiction writers would do so.  If you notice, almost every fictional worldview presupposes that good and evil are not only real but also identifiable.  Otherwise, there would be no such thing as the “good guys.”

Another popular explanation for the origins of good and evil is what we might call a “dualistic” worldview.  Dualism suggests that good and evil are equal, ultimate forces in the universe that are battling it out for supremacy.   Both forces were there from the beginning, neither being first.  The fictional Star Wars saga is quite close to a dualistic worldview.  The universe is composed of a good side of the force and a bad side of the force, each striving to overthrow the other.

But, dualism doesn’t quite solve the problem.  It’s fine to suggest that good and evil have both been there from the beginning, but why do we call one of these forces “good” and the other “evil”?  It cannot simply be that we prefer one over the other—our personal preferences do not make something good or evil.  In order to say one force is good and another evil, we must be comparing these forces to some greater, higher standard.  Lewis argues,

But since the two powers are judged by this standard, then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up–than either of them, and He will be the real God. In fact, what we meant by calling them good and bad turns out to be that one of them is in a right relation to the real ultimate God and the other in a wrong relation to Him (MC, 45).

In contrast to both materialism and dualism, Christian theism has argued that God originally made the world good and that evil is a subsequent corruption and distortion of a good thing.  Once again, Lewis makes this clear,

Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.  And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled. . . And do you now begin to see why Christianity has always said that the devil is a fallen angel?  That is not a mere story for the children. It is a real recognition of the fact that evil is a parasite, not an original thing (MC, 46-47).

What is particularly noteworthy is that when Lewis and Tolkien developed their fictional worldviews—the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth—they based them not on materialism nor dualism but on Christian theism.  These are fictional worlds that once started out completely good and then were later corrupted by evil.

This is particularly evident in Lord of the Rings.  Ilúvatar created all things good (he even created with words, namely a song).  But, there was rebellion and subsequent corruption.  And so all evil things, if you go back far enough, were once good things.  Orcs were originally elves that were twisted and corrupted.  The ringwraiths were once men, kings of old.   Even Sauron himself was once good before he became an evil servant of Melkor.

The quintessential example of creatures starting off good and turning evil is Gollum.  Once part of the hobbit-like river folk, Smeagol was deceived by the ring and slowly was transformed into a hideous, twisted shell of his former self.   He grew to loathe all beautiful things and fled underground into darkness and solitude.

And here is the catch.  Without a Christian theistic worldview providing the foundation for their fictional stories, Lewis and Tolkien’s cherished works would have lacked the very thing that makes them so compelling: the triumph of good over evil.  This triumph only makes sense if there really are good and evil, and you can identify which is which.

For this reason, one might argue that every story that has theme of good triumphing over evil is actually presupposing a Christian worldview—whether they realize it or not.  Such stories are shadowy reflections of the one true archetypal story, a good God redeeming a fallen world through Jesus Christ.